The Fate of Cesar Chavez’s Dream
In her important new book, "The Union of Their Dreams - Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement" Miriam Pawel chronicles how a movement to unionize farmworkers failed to realize its charismatic founder’s vision as his relatives turned a union into a family business.
Book Review by Marc Cooper on the Fate of Cesar Chavez’s Dream
In the midst of a searing heat wave in the summer of 2005, three Mexican-born California farmworkers succumbed to the relentless sun within a few weeks of each other. Outraged local community groups, some with roots in but no longer affiliated with the legendary United Farm Workers union, organized a protest march and rally in the gritty town of Arvin, in California’s Central Valley.
At the last minute, a delegation from the UFW more or less commandeered the event from the original organizers. I was there reporting on the conditions in California’s fields (for a piece that would be published few weeks later in the L.A. Weekly) when I saw the UFW arrive. Accompanied by a caravan of shiny vans, with a high-tech mobile broadcast unit along from one of the union-run radio stations, UFW members in trademark red-and-black T-shirts disembarked from a couple of buses and joined the crowd assembled in a church patio.
The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. The farmworkers were dusty and rail-thin and mostly young men dressed in jeans and work shirts. Many, if not most, were fairly recent border-hoppers from the impoverished Mexican state of Oaxaca. And most of them were Mixtec Indians who spoke choppy Spanish. The UFW members, by contrast, were older, clearly middle-class, many of them Chicanos, many of them college-educated, thick around the middle and wearing neatly pressed chinos.
As one of their leaders used a bullhorn to shout “Viva La Causa! Viva Cesar Chavez!” many of the heat-weary farmworkers only politely clapped or just stood unmoved.
Among those who have worked as California farmworker advocates, or who have done any reporting among such advocates over the last decade or so, there’s a well-known and grim joke: Ask almost any farmworker today just who is Cesar Chavez and the answer is that he’s a great boxer—Julio Cesar Chavez, that is.
If one needed any proof of the waning influence of Chavez’s UFW, he or she would have to look no further than a momentous union election held shortly after this rally at the giant Giumarra vineyards. Even though the union had had one of its first contracts with the massive grower and was riding the crest of anger over the recent heat-related deaths (so dire that even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger imposed an emergency order to give some relief to fieldworkers), the UFW was soundly defeated in a slap-dash drive to reunionize the Giumarra workers.
Again, this was hardly a surprise to those few lawyers, advocates and organizers still paying attention to California’s campesinos. By 2005, the UFW held no contracts with any Central California table grape growers. Indeed, more than 40 years after its founding, only about 1 percent—or 5,000—of the state’s farmworkers were organized by the UFW. The union reaped revenues of $20 million to $30 million a year by cashing in on the iconic stature of its founder, who died in 1993. And it controlled a $150 million network of affiliated foundations, charities, service groups, construction firms and housing corporations, managed mostly by Cesar Chavez’s offspring and relatives. But it simply did not organize farmworkers. It was a family business. Not a union.
In the spring following that overheated summer of 2005, then-Los Angeles Times reporter Miriam Pawel set off a ruckus by writing a deeply researched multipart series detailing this tragic decline of the UFW and the rampant Chavez family nepotism that was capitalizing on the name of the union’s founder while ignoring the plight of its supposed constituents.
Some Latino and leftist groups went apoplectic over the public critique of the Chavez legacy. The union reacted furiously, picketing the Times, handing ultimatums to its then-editor and ultimately issuing a 62-page letter from one of its lawyers threatening to sue Pawel and the Times unless they retracted the story. And, not coincidentally, the L.A. Weekly and this author was served with a similar threat, in a 20-page demand, over a similar piece I had written before Pawel’s series.